​Waymo vs. Uber lawsuit: 10 things you need to know

Get the highlights before it's decided whether this high-stakes case will play out in private arbitration or public court.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
4 min read

Filings in the Waymo vs. Uber suit tend to be heavily redacted.

Screenshot by CNET

The Waymo vs. Uber lawsuit has it all -- intrigue, secrecy, powerful players, allegations of theft. It details a story that could come straight from a John Grisham legal thriller.

And it's just the beginning.

A trial date is set for October, but it's unclear if the case will even go to trial. A federal judge will likely decide next week whether the case will play out in private arbitration or public court. Uber is pushing for arbitration, while Waymo wants a trial.

Ever since Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google parent Alphabet, filed its lawsuit against Uber in February, both companies have supplied the court with detail-filled documents. While many are heavily redacted, some juicy tidbits have been revealed.

The gist of the case centers on Waymo's claims that former Google employee Anthony Levandowski stole 14,000 "highly confidential" files before he left to found his own self-driving truck startup. Uber bought that startup, Otto, a few months later. The files in question reportedly contained self-driving car technology that Waymo says Uber used for its autonomous vehicle program.

Uber has called Waymo's claims "baseless" and "demonstrably false."

Here's a list of 10 things you need to know about the case:

1. Who started self-driving first?

Google, before it formed Waymo, started working on self-driving cars in 2009. Uber announced its autonomous vehicle program in February 2015.

2. What is Anthony Levandowski's connection to Google?

Levandowski has a long history of working on self-driving cars. He joined Google as a software engineer in 2007 and helped pioneer the tech giant's self-driving-car project. Levandowski left Google in January 2016.

3. What is lidar?

Lidar, or "light detection and ranging," is one of the main technologies used in both Waymo and Uber's self-driving cars. It's a key component that lets the vehicles "see" their surroundings and detect traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists and other obstacles. Waymo claims Uber used its lidar trade secrets. Uber says its lidar technology is "fundamentally different" than Waymo's.

4. What did Levandowski allegedly do?

Waymo alleges that Levandowski went to great lengths to steal the 14,000 files and then cover his tracks. It claims he downloaded "specialized software" to access the files, downloaded 9.7 gigabytes of confidential information and then transferred the data to an external hard drive. After that, he allegedly installed a new operating system on the computer in an attempt to "erase any forensic fingerprints."

5. Waymo sussed out the alleged theft from an accidental email

Waymo says it learned of the alleged file theft after a supplier accidentally emailed a Waymo employee a diagram of Uber's lidar circuit board. "This circuit board bears a striking resemblance to Waymo's own highly confidential and proprietary design and reflects Waymo trade secrets," Waymo's February complaint reads.

6. When did Uber and Levandowski reportedly get into cahoots?

Levandowski reportedly met with Uber executive Brian McClendon in the summer of 2015. He also was reportedly seen at Uber's headquarters in January 2016 before he left Google. Levandowski said he met with Uber because he was looking for investors for his new startup. Waymo claims that two days after Levandowski resigned from Google he signed an agreement with Uber attorneys that would shield him from a potential lawsuit over Uber buying Otto. Uber didn't acquire Otto until August 2016.

7. Why isn't Levandowski named in the suit?

Waymo likely didn't name Levandowski in the original complaint because it wanted the case to go to public trial, rather than be settled in private arbitration. Arbitration clauses are usually between employees and their employers, not between companies. This means Uber might not have standing to ask for private arbitration. The judge will likely decide this matter next week.

8. Levandowski pleads the Fifth Amendment

Levandowski said in March that he was pleading the Fifth and would not testify in the case. The US Constitution's Fifth Amendment protects individuals against self-incrimination. This means he's been able to refuse to answer questions about the alleged file theft.

9. Where are the alleged 14,000 files?

Since Waymo filed its suit, Uber said it's interviewed 85 current and former employees who previously worked at Google. It also randomly searched 10 of their computers. Uber said it hasn't found anything substantive. Waymo said Uber's search was insufficient and too limited. The judge has agreed with Waymo and ordered Uber to do a more thorough search.

10. Uber may be forced to halt its self-driving program, soon

Waymo is seeking an injunction against Uber's self-driving car pilot. If the judge grants an injunction, Uber will likely have to temporarily halt its self-driving car pilot, which already has autonomous vehicles cruising city streets in Pennsylvania, Arizona and California. It could also mean that Levandowski will have to step down as head of autonomous vehicles for Uber until a judgment on the suit is decided. The hearing for the judge to decide on an injunction is scheduled for May 3.

First published April 27, 8 a.m. PT.
Update, April 27, 11:43 a.m. PT: Adds information about the judge likely making an arbitration decision next week.

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